Taiwan’s Golden Boy Could be History

If anybody ought to benefit from the indictment of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s wife’s slush funds scandal, it should be Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, who as the main opposition candidate would be a shoo-in to take over the presidency in March 2008 from a badly flagging Democratic Progressive Party.

But Ma is embroiled in his own scandal and the odds are increasing that he won’t run for the presidency, either because he is dumped as leader of the Kuomintang or because he has lost the desire to endure the slings and arrows of Taiwan’s ferocious political culture. Ma says he would resign as party chairman if he is indicted on corruption charges concerning the alleged misuse of the "special mayoral allowance."

The country’s next milestone, and the next signal of voter disenchantment, is December 9, when Taipei and Kaohsiung choose mayors and city councillors. Latest polls show the Kuomintang mayoral candidate ahead in both cities. Victories there would help Ma keep his post as chairman.

If not, it is an unexpected and saddening dénouement for Ma, formerly known as the golden boy of Taiwanese politics, whose image is that of a new-era, western-style political figure who had sought to lead the Kuomintang away from its scandal-scarred past. The Harvard-trained politician, 56, has been the choice of more than half of Taiwan’s electorate as well as governments in Beijing, Washington and Brussels, where he was regarded as the man to palliate Beijing’s wrath by pointedly not declaring independence and lowering the considerable political temperature. Chen has kept Beijing on the boil virtually since he took office in 2000 by flirting with outright independence.

But friends say that Ma has been badly shaken by allegations that, over the last three years, he had embezzled half of the NT$340,000 in monthly expenses allocated to him for public use and that he had knowingly allowed his secretary to use receipts from others to account for the other half of the expenses. The Taiwan media has said that the prosecutors are likely to issue charges against him over the use of the expenses.

Political slush funds provided by unknowing taxpayers are a way of life for Taiwanese politicians and have been virtually since the late President Chiang Kai-shek led his defeated nationalist party to the island in 1949. The indictment of Chen’s wife, Wu Shu-chen, in early November for allegedly using false receipts to claim US$450,000 in expenses from a government slush fund used for secret diplomatic activities, however, has kicked off public outrage in Taiwan. If anything, it is a sign of the country’s maturing democratic institutions that the slush funds appear likely to be curtailed sharply.

Nonetheless, the funds in the past have served a crucial national purpose, providing the wherewithal to bribe statelets from Africa to obscure Pacific islands into recognizing Taiwan over Beijing and paying for such inconvenient incidentals as mainland spies. For lesser politicians, they have served as convenient troughs to dole out favors to supporters. And for the less-than-virtuous, they have often served as personal piggy banks.

Other politicians might survive. But the allegations have damaged Ma more than most, tarnishing his greatest asset – his reputation as a clean politician and a sophisticated intellectual among a crowd of thieves and ruffians. More, they have threatened Ma’s own sense of righteousness and made him question whether the continuing scandal is worth the daily pressure. As Asia Sentinel reported in September, from the time in July of 2005 when he began his successful bid to become chairman of the nationalist Kuomintang Party, he has suffered from a series of political vacillations and gaffes, particularly over the granting of permits for rallies against Chen in 2005 and over moves in the legislature to attempt to impeach Chen, that have caused even some members of his own party to question his leadership.

Ma had been a rising political star since the time when he started work in the palace of President Chiang Ching-kuo within six months of returning from Harvard in 1981, becoming one of Chiang’s personal translators. He was deputy secretary-general of the Nationalist Party from 1984 to 1988.

In direct contrast to his current entanglement in the slush fund, as Minister of Justice from 1993-96, he won widespread public acclaim for his work in attacking illegal financial links between business and politics – ‘black gold’ – and, many believe, lost his post because he was too successful at it.

After a brief period as minister without portfolio, Ma returned to the academic world to teach law, and most believed that his political career was over. With law degrees from National Taiwan University, New York University and Harvard, a wooden speaking style and shy demeanour, Ma is more at home in lecture halls and international seminars than the rough and tumble of popular politics.

However, he fit perfectly into the political world that existed in Taiwan from 1945 until 2000, when the Nationalist Party held a monopoly on power and ministers were economists, engineers, military officers and technocrats, many trained overseas, and support of the public was not a requirement. He is a mainlander, born in the Kwong Wah hospital in Hong Kong, to parents from Hunan province. The family moved to Taiwan in 1951. Mainlanders account for 14 percent of Taiwan’s population of 23 million, the 1.5 million soldiers and civilians who moved to the island with Chiang and their descendants.

The mainlanders dominated the government, the Kuomintang Party, the army and the police until the late 1980s. Mandarin was the language of government, education and the security forces and few mainlanders mastered Taiwanese, the mother tongue of 70 percent of the population, which they considered a “dialect” until Lee Teng-hui became president in 1988 and began his policy of ‘Taiwanisation,” which enraged Beijing.

In 1998, for want of another credible candidate, the Nationalist party persuaded Ma to come out of retirement and run as candidate for mayor of Taipei against incumbent Chen Shui-bian. He won a narrow victory in a city with a large proportion of mainlanders, thanks to his sophistication, reputation for honesty and his good looks. In December 2002, he easily won re-election, with 64 per cent of the votes, over a novice challenger from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

More than any other Nationalist leader, Ma has adapted to the new reality of popular politics. In public, he increasingly speaks in Taiwanese, although he is more comfortable in Mandarin or English. Careful not to get too close to Beijing, he has refused to visit the mainland, where the red-carpet official welcome and thousands of cheering onlookers alienate thousands of voters at home. He attends memorial services for victims of the June 1989 killings in Beijing and gatherings of Falun Gong.

He has put distance between himself and President Chen by proposing a peace treaty in which Beijing promises not to attack Taiwan in exchange for a promise not to declare independence and calling for direct trade, transport and postal links. Ma’s position is between that of Chen, who wants Taiwan to be as independent of the mainland as possible, and that of the right wing of his Kuomintang party, who are moving toward a ‘one-country, two-systems’ system under which Hong Kong was returned to China.

He has tackled the issue of the assets owned by the Nationalists, once the richest political party in the world, by selling many of them and offering to donate to the state those assets that it took over from the Japanese government, which ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945.

But Ma’s eight-year record as Taipei mayor is patchy. He did not respond quickly enough to the SARS epidemic in 2003, nor to serious flooding the following year. Many in his party criticize him for being indecisive and too eager to avoid confrontation with President Chen and the DPP. In the summer of 2005, when running for the party presidency, he ran a negative campaign against his main rival Wang Jin-ping, the speaker of the Legislature, which soured the relationship between the two men. If the party dumps Ma, Wang is the one they are most likely to choose as presidential candidate. And Wang, a powerhouse in legislature, is very much representative of the traditional Taiwanese-style pol.